Friday, April 26, 2013

Cockney rhyming slang.

So, what's a Godiva? It's a five pound note, or, in Cockney speech, a "five-ah," which rhymes with "Godiva." This is Cockney rhyming slang at its most basic--for the word intended, substitute another word with which it rhymes. There is another, more meta (to use a Greek-rooted prefix recently made into an adjective) version in which, instead of the word that rhymes with the intended word, another word associated with the rhyming word is used. For example, instead of "Godiva" for a five-ah, say "Lady," a word usually yoked to Godiva, as in, "That'll cost you a Lady."

I was introduced to the meta version some years ago at the bar of the Bells of Hell. I was chatting with an English friend when a--how you say?--well-endowed young woman walked by. "Nice set of Bristols," my friend said. His meaning was obvious to me, but the usage wasn't. "There's a football club called Bristol City," he explained, "and city rhymes with... ."

One Briticism that piqued my curiosity is "Gone for a Burton." Having seen this in Private Eye, I asked another English friend what it meant. "It means he died," was the answer. "How does it mean that?" I asked. My friend didn't know. I later read that it may have originated with Royal Air Force flyers in World War Two, to refer to a comrade who hadn't survived a mission. Burton, or Burton-on-Trent to give its full name, is a city known for its breweries, as acknowledged by A.E. Housman in A Shropshire Lad:
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,        
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
A plain meaning of "Gone for a Burton" then would be "Gone to the pub for a pint." Regarding a deceased friend, it could mean "Gone to that big pub in the sky." Still, I wonder if it might not be an instance of Cockney rhyming slang. Burton doesn't have any obvious rhyme relating to death, nor does Trent, nor ale, the brew that made Burton famous. But it occurred to me that a properly drawn pint of ale has a head, which rhymes with dead. If this is in fact the origin of the expression, it could be an instance of meta-meta rhyming slang, going from Burton to ale to head. If, however, Burton is taken as a synonym for ale, then it's only a single meta.

Regarding the sign in the photo at the top of this post, I found translations for "monkeys" (hundred pound notes) and "ponies" (twenty-fivers) in this glossary. I don't know the meaning of "edges" or of "carpets." Perhaps one of my English friends can help. "Visa," I presume, means just what it is.

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